Buttons and switches and screens, oh my! in the 2017 Chevy Bolt EV
Buttons and switches and screens, oh my! in the 2017 Chevy Bolt EV

You have probably noticed that there’s more stuff going on in a car today than ever before. You’ve got at least one screen, and sometimes two or three. Sometimes you can touch that screen to make changes, and sometimes you have to turn a knob or talk out loud to give a command. And that’s not even getting into whatever is going on with or behind the steering wheel. Those buttons can get very confusing.

Think about this: someone designs and implements every single one of those things. Whole teams of someones, actually. At GM, the head of that team is Mike Hichme. He’s officially the executive director of user experience. What that really means, he said in a phone interview, is that he’s “responsible for anything the car communicates with the customer, or the customer communicates with the car.” If you can touch it, turn it, talk to it, flip it, or slide it, Hichme and his teams have something to do with how it works. (Or doesn’t.)

And he means anything, from apps that connect to your car and Alexa integrations to safety systems like turning on park assist or adaptive cruise control. Hichme started working on these interfaces a decade ago, before it was called “user experience.” He was “in engineering, mostly,” he said. “My role grew. I planted the seed and became the tree.” It took until October of 2016 to create the official role that Hichme now holds, which means the designs he’s been working for the past year are barely in any new cars on the road.

Is There Actually an App for That?

Hichme still works with a team that works on what we see on the screens of GM cars. “Eighty percent of what I do is based on the team I run,” he said. “Without doing things yourself, you get into consultant mode.” And that does not lead to a good user experience, he’s found.

“Design has a seat at the table, but there are a lot of tables,” he noted, from materials to engineering to software. Anytime you touch a switch of any kind, there’s a reaction from the car. You engage cruise control, or turn up the heat, or change the radio station. Someone—again, probably many someones—have thought about the reach and visibility of those switches for you as a driver. And should it be a switch or a button?

“There’s a lot of content coming into vehicles,” Hichme said, “and it needs to be managed. Maybe over time we’ll delete some buttons and things will happen automatically.” He’s also looking at offloading some buttons to apps or Alexa. “Does it make sense to put [another button] in a vehicle if it can be done on an app?”

BYO Engineer

GM brings in end users—normal people from the community—on an almost daily basis to try all these buttons and switches out. “We recruit customers who have a certain vehicle or even own a certain kind of cell phone,” Hichme said. His team observes people using new or even old designs, or they interview subjects about how they use these things. “It’s like ethnographic field research; the team loves it,” he said. “We’ve ridden along on family road trips and with realtors on the job.”

The team also sets up “naturalistic driving studies,” where GM vehicles are equipped with cameras to record participants’ driving over time. They know they’re being filmed, but eventually they forget they’re being watched and use the buttons and switches the way they normally would.

“My goal is to do ride-alongs throughout the organization,” Hichme said. He’d like to get engineers and software designers in the cars with customers so everyone can see how people actually use what’s in the car and what might improve the driver’s ability to, you know, drive.

You Say You Want a Revolution. Maybe.

Hichme is aware that there is a lot of skepticism, bordering on fear, about autonomous vehicles. But he thinks we’re at another pivotal point in automotive history, similar to when cars themselves arrived on the scene. “When cars were first coming out, you had to have a flag man walk in front of the vehicle to warn people and horses. It was challenging to even own a car.”

Similarly, he thinks, “a lot of what we read about ADAS or autonomous vehicles is hearsay; it’s not based on experience, it’s based on fear of the unknown. I’m not going to be able to say anything to change that.”

But Hichme’s experience echoes what other studies and surveys have found: once people try it, they tend to like it. But he’s also seen a flip side—no matter how hard auto manufacturers try to ease people into new technology, there are a lot of people who are buying a new car for the first time in ten years. In modern vehicles, that’s skipping generations of technology. “They’re not eased into it,” Hichme admits.

Most of GM’s major dealerships have a specialist on staff to help new owners learn what their car can do and how to make those things work. Most people want to get the hell out of the dealership as soon as they buy the car, though, so those specialists are available any time after you drive off the lot. No need to linger one extra minute on drive-home day if you don’t want to. And, if you really want to fly by the seat of your pants, you can ask GM’s OnStar how to work anything in your car during your free three-month trial of the service.

Of course, OnStar is a button, so it’s Hichme approved.

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